Hyper Light Drifter Ouya, PC, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One
The Drifter’s respawn animation takes seconds. At times, it feels like an age. You’ll likely find yourself irritatedly thumbing the face buttons, but he won’t rise any quicker. In a world where death comes swiftly and often, this is a bold choice, but a necessary one. It’s a reminder not to rush back into the fray; that there’s only so much punishment you can take. More crucially, it says much about the Drifter himself. Even without foreknowledge of the game’s semi-autobiographical elements, there’s something moving in the way he slowly hoists himself to his feet. His body may be weakened by debilitating illness – and, in our hands, by frequent defeat – but he’s prepared to defy it. His spirit wills him to go on and so, despite everything, he does.
So, despite everything, will you. Hyper Light Drifter’s world is so copiously stuffed with secrets and riddles that, even without the luminous pixel art to compel you to continue, there’s always an impetus to investigate further. So reluctant is it to reveal anything without your prompting, in fact, that it withholds all but the most essential information. Within moments, you’ll have learned how to heal – which in itself says a lot – but your basic sword attack and dash move are yours to discover. As, too, is the currency. The map, and an early glimpse at what looks like some form of schematic, suggests your main goal without explicitly revealing what your motivation might be for achieving it. And while the southern exit from the central village hub is obstructed, you’re free to wander north, east or west.
The early 2D Zelda games are an obvious touchstone, though you’re not a wide-eyed explorer like Link, but a nomadic warrior, consistently facing unfavourable odds. Often you’ll encounter beasts in the field but, as per tradition, you’ll sometimes be barricaded in with a host of opponents, and only by defeating them all will you remove the blockade. Defeating them requires careful crowd control, not least as the spaces you’re confined to can be claustrophobic and cluttered. You’ll soon understand the importance of prioritising threats as you alternate between swinging your sword and firing your currently equipped gun. Staying at a safe distance isn’t always possible, because the only way to refill your ammo is to land a successful melee attack, while a lengthy cooldown for your grenade means it should only be used in the direst circumstances.
The expressive animation conveys conviction and precision in every dash, swipe and shot, but this isn’t a game that will allow you to chain endless combos, and it laughs at the idea of invincibility frames on your dash or charge attacks. Healing takes time, requiring you to make space where it’s usually at a premium (think Dark Souls’ Estus flasks rather than Bloodborne’s vials). As such, there’s a sweaty desperation to combat that only heightens the elation at surviving the more difficult battles. Should you perish, Heart Machine does you a rare kindness by returning you to the room prior to the one in which you fell.
Not that ‘room’ is always an adequate description for these intricate spaces, which can be elaborate, sprawling affairs. Secrets are squirrelled away in distant corners and hidden alcoves, behind breakable obstructions and across chasmal gaps, negotiated via concealed platforms that flash into existence at specific trigger points. Over time you’ll notice familiar tells – floor lights trailing into walls, scraps of paper, suspicious clusters of ice crystals – and although there’s too much wall-hugging involved in unearthing some surprises, largely you’re simply invited to study your environment more closely.
And why wouldn’t you, when it looks this good? Neon aquamarines and magentas add an ’80s-sci-fi sheen to familiar mountain, desert and forest biomes. Birds flutter and waters ripple around a flooded temple as you pass by a drowned Titan, the mouth of its mosscovered skull agape, its fingers clawing at the surface. There are ruins and robotics, tangles of vines and wires, suggesting a battle of science and nature, past and future. You’ll stumble across piles of bloodied creatures; later, you’ll look around a room strewn with the warm corpses of the recently slain. As grim as it gets, there are glimmers of life and hope in the few figures you encounter, even if their gnomic utterances and pictorial tales leave you with as many questions as answers.
The soundtrack, too, speaks to a bleak worldview, which unobtrusively supplements the unsettled, diseased milieu. At times, it’s hard to tell where the music ends and the effects begin: in quieter moments it drops to a faint whisper, and elsewhere you’ll hear bassy, portentous rumblings. The sign of a world with a gnawing ache at its very foundations, perhaps? The thrum of some ancient machinery whirring deep beneath the surface? Or a herald of imminent danger?
It’s usually the latter – and just occasionally, the intensity can feel punishing rather than exhilarating. After a third or fourth enemy wave spawns in a single room you wonder if you’ve missed a trick and they’re going to keep coming forever. And your heart will sink after failing at the far end of an extended gauntlet when it dawns that the entrance, and thus the checkpoint, was the best part of ten minutes ago.
Yet you’ll grit your teeth, because there’s always a reason to continue – whether it’s a fresh mystery, a showy display of kinetic swordsmanship and gunplay, or a thrilling mismatch against a towering guardian. As much as you may have found, there’s a persistent sensation there’s plenty you haven’t. Look again at the Drifter as he summons the will to pick himself up once more, and be inspired. Crumpled, bruised, hacking up blood but still somehow determined to carry on: if he can keep going, then you surely can.
Even without the luminous pixel art to compel you to continue, there’s always an impetus to investigate further